During Moses’ first forty days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai, God expands the Israelite religion by giving Moses the plans for a portable tent-sanctuary, and calling for hereditary priests.1 Moses’ brother Aaron will become the first high priest, and his four sons will serve as priests under him. Before saying anything about the ordination or the duties of the priests, God describes the vestments of the high priest in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10).
“And you shall make sacred clothing for Aaron, your brother, for magnificence and for beauty.” (Exodus/Shemot 28: 2)
The garments God plans for Aaron are as magnificent and beautiful as the robes of an emperor. But they also contain reminders that the high priest is a holy human being, completely dedicated to God—and a device that lets everyone hear where he is.
Reminder stones on the shoulders
The first reminders God describes in this week’s Torah portion are two dark blue stones attached to the shoulder straps of the tabard the high priest will wear over his robe. (This tabard, called an eifod (אֵפֺד), consists of two rectangular pieces of cloth made with gold, deep blue, red violet, and crimson yarns. One piece covers the chest and one piece covers the back. The pieces are connected with wide straps over the shoulders, and ties at the sides.)
“And you will take two lapis lazuli stones and you will engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the second stone … you will make them encircled with gold settings. And you will put the two stones on the shoulder straps of the eifod as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron will carry their names before God on his two shoulder straps for remembrance.” (Exodus 28:9-12)
The names of the twelve “sons of Israel” are the names of the twelve tribes of Israelites. These stones will remind Aaron that he must represent all the Israelites in his service to God. According to Rashi, the stones are also a reminder to God; their purpose is: “so that the Holy One, blessed be He, will see the names of the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness.”2
Reminder stones on the pocket
The next reminder is on a large square pocket called a choshen (חֺשֶׁן), which will be attachedwith gold rings tothe front of the eifod.3 Twelve different precious stones will be set into the front panel of the choshen, one stone for each tribe.
“Aaron will carry the names of the sons of Israel on the choshen of judgment, over his heart, when he comes into the holy place, to remember them before God constantly.” (Exodus 28:29)
By keeping the twelve stones over his heart, Aaron will be symbolically keeping all twelve tribes in his thoughts and feelings. (The ancient Israelites considered the heart the seat of the mind as well as the emotions.) According to 18th-century rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. the twelve stones would also serve to remind all the Israelites that although God chose Aaron as the high priest, they were not rejected; God loves them, too.4
Reminder medallion on the forehead
The high priest will also wear a gold medallion on his forehead, in front of his turban.5
“You will make a flower of pure gold, and you will engrave on it [like] the engraving on a seal: Holy to God.” (Exodus 28:36)
This medallion will label the high priest as consecrated to God. The words on his forehead will also remind him of his role on behalf of the Israelites.
“And it will be on his forehead constantly, to win favor for them before God.” (Exodus 28:38)
One interpretation in the Talmud is that the words on the gold medallion propitiate God when the high priest accidentally makes an impure offering on the altar.6 It also reminds the high priest that everything he does must be dedicated to God. To make sure he remembers, he is supposed to touch the gold medallion on his forehead from time to time.7 Like the choshen, the high priest must wear the medallion “constantly”, i.e. whenever he is in the sanctuary. Without it, he cannot serve as a high priest.
Warning bells on the hem
Under his eifod and choshen, the high priest will wear a me-il (מְעִיל), a long sleeveless tunic that is reserved for priests and royalty in the Hebrew Bible.
“You will make a me-il of the eifod, entirely deep blue. … And you will make on its hem pomegranates of deep blue and red-violet and crimson, all around its hem. And pa-amonim of gold among them, all around: a pa-amon and a pomegranate, a pa-amon and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:33-34)
pa-amon (פַּעֲמוֹן) = a small bell. (Plural: pa-amonim, פַּעֲמוֹנִים)
According to the Talmud, there were either 72 or 36 gold bells with clappers, and both these bells and the woolen pomegranates dangled down from the hem.8 Pomegranates were a common decorative motif; their many seeds made the fruits symbols of fertility. But what are the bells for?
“And Aaron will wear [the me-il] to wait on God, and its sound will be heard when he comes into to the holy place before God and when he goes out, so he will not die.” (Exodus 28: 35)
The Torah does not specify whether the holy place is the whole sacred enclosure, or the tent-sanctuary inside it, or the Holy of Holies (the back room inside the tent). The Torah also does not specify who must hear the bells ringing.
Both Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) and Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340) wrote that the sound of the bells must be heard by God and any ministering angels present inside the Holy of Holies. (After the death of Moses, only the high priest was allowed to come into the Holies of Holies, the locus of God’s presence on earth, and he would only enter once a year, on Yom Kippur. According to one Talmud tractate, the clappers were hung inside the bells only on that day.9)
The tinkling of the bells, these commentators explained, was a polite way both to ask God for entry, and to ask the angels to leave before the high priest came in. Without this courteous warning, he might be killed as an intruder by either an angel or the Torah’s anthropomorphic God.
On the other hand, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya noted, the high priest must wear only linen when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, according to the Torah portion Acharei Mot in Leviticus.10 So the gold bells between the wool pomegranate bobbles must chime their warning while he is still in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting—as if he were standing outside a door and ringing the bell. Then the high priest changes clothes before entering.
According to this scenario, God and the ministering angels in the Holy of Holies must need a lot of advance notice. In Leviticus, after the high priest changes into his pure white linen garments on Yom Kippur, he places lots on two goats, slaughters one of the goats and his own bull at the altar, collects the blood of each, scoops glowing coals into his fire-pan, and walks back into the tent, where he picks up two handfuls of incense before he steps behind the curtain.11
The tinkling of bells on the high priest’s hem might also serve as a warning to the other priests that their boss is approaching. Even on an ordinary day, he might want to be alone inside the tent-sanctuary.
In addition, whenever the Israelites standing in the courtyard outside the tent heard the bells, they would be reassured to know that their high priest was on the job, atoning for their misdeeds and keeping God happy.
But merely wearing a robe with bells sewn around the bottom is not enough, regardless of who is listening,. After all, the bells will chime only when the high priest is walking. If his is standing still, or tiptoeing carefully in and out of the sanctuary, the sound will be too faint to hear. He has to stride in and out.
Perhaps the instruction about the bells means that in order to do the highest service to God, one must not be timid. One must enter the sacred space of prayer, or any other spiritual practice, boldly and openly. Let the sound of your practice be heard. Other people will either join you gladly, or back away to avoid confrontation—which are both good outcomes.
Besides striding into your religious practice, it is also helpful to keep reminders of how you intend to use your religion for the good. It would be impractical to wear stones with the names of all the “tribes” in your world, but you might find another way to remind yourself that you intend to be their ally and emissary.
It would also be impractical to wear a gold plate engraved “Holy to God” on your forehead, but you might find another reminder that every action you take matters, and you can make your deeds worthy of a good God. Some Jews wear a kippah (also called a yarmulke) for this purpose. What would work for you?
- See last week’s post, Terumah: Insecurity.
- Inside the pocket the high priest keeps the urim and tumim, two objects used for determining God’s answers to simple questions. See my post Tetzaveh: Divining.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, a.k.a. Rashi, on Exodus 28:12, translated by www.sefaria.org. This interpretation is also implied in the earlier text of Shemot Rabbah and in 16th-century commentary by Ovadiah Sforno.
- Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, on Exodus 28:29.
- See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
- Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 77a-81b and Zevachim 22b-23b, 45b, and 82a.
- Rashi, based on Talmud Bavli, Yoma 7b.
- Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 88b.
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 44b.
- Leviticus 6:2-4, 6:13-14.
- Leviticus 6:5-13.